By Maria Chavarri
Being an international student is such a fun experience. I am one myself, and I’m so grateful for the opportunities I have experienced and the people I’ve met. However, studying in a different country than where you are from challenges you in many ways beyond the academic. With that being said, the line between getting out of your comfort zone and feeling uncomfortable or misunderstood can be very blurry as an international student, which is why we need your help!
The following are a few things I believe would make it easier for international students to feel welcomed and understood within their college campuses. These mostly feel like common sense, but it’s important to keep them in mind whenever you meet someone from a very different background that’s just trying to fit in.
- Greetings and maneuvering social life
Let’s start with the basics. Based on experience, I can say that people have very different ways of greeting each other based on the social situation. As someone from a foreign country, I sometimes find it hard to be aware of the “unwritten rules” that come into place depending on the social interaction. For instance, back home, I give a kiss on each cheek to whoever I meet for the first time (this was before the pandemic, of course.) So if you see us struggling to reach out to you, it might be because we don’t know what to do. A handshake? A hug? Just a wave? Sometimes we need a little push to warm up to you and learn how to act in front of new people.
- Slang and pronunciation
Slang is another big question mark for us sometimes. We will normally nod to whatever word we don’t know during a conversation and try to understand what you mean based on context. If, on the contrary, we ask about a term, please don’t laugh or make us feel bad for not “being on the loop.” The same thing goes for pronunciation; if we mispronounce something, please correct us politely! We want to learn, so we’ll appreciate it.
- Take us places, please
Yes, please be our tour guide! If you happen to be a local, or even from out of state, but you own a car, please show us around the town/city/wherever the campus is. We might come from cultures where going out alone isn’t safe! Or we might want somebody that knows a couple of cool places to take us out for brunch.
- Be open to our culture
As we want you to show us places you like, we want to show you little pieces of our culture that are meaningful to us! So even if it is through food or a Netflix show, open yourself to our culture, and let us show you a little piece of home.
- We’re not exotic
I know it’s easy to make assumptions based on where people come from. Innocently sounding comments such as “This must be very different from home. I don’t know how you’re adjusting” materialize a divide we all have in our heads between national and international students. Instead of assuming how we’re doing, ask us about our experience. Instead of telling us how “exotic” we are (which shouldn’t be a compliment), make us feel included by spending time with us and introducing us to more people and communities on campus.
- Our visa is precious
This one might not apply to all, but most international students depend on their student visas to be in the country. Certain activities normalized in party culture could jeopardize our visa status and, in the worst case, get us deported. Drinking under 21 is the most common example, and of course, being caught with illegal substances is a big no-no. This sometimes creates insecurities about party college life among international students. Still, of course, not every one of us has these consequences in mind every time we go out. If one of your friends depends on their visa status to be permitted in the country, be mindful of their boundaries when it comes to going out.
Thanksgiving is usually a foreign experience for us. Every late November, when everyone goes back home and campuses become isolated, there is always a population of international students that have no home to go to. Even though we wouldn’t celebrate if we visited our families, it feels lonely to be one of the five people left in your building. If you have a very close international friend, consider inviting them over for Thanksgiving. Our first time is always very exciting for us, and spending those typically lonely days getting to know new people and traditions is an experience we will always hold dear to our hearts.
- Strong support system
It isn’t only during Thanksgiving that your international friends can miss home a little more than usual. Being very far away, or even many hours behind or ahead, can make us feel lonely and homesick (even though we all eventually get used to it). Of course, we all miss home no matter where we’re from, but not being able to talk to your family due to time differences can be hard to endure. International students need a strong support system that makes up for our homes’ physical and emotional distance. This means that sometimes we’re going to rely on you as if you were family, as you’re the closest we have to that while we’re in a foreign country.
Being friends with an international student requires openness and having these points in mind, but it’s also extremely rewarding. Both parts are bound to learn about different customs, cultures, and places, which is the beauty of living a college experience.